Atlanta Man Sentenced For WIC Fraud
NEWNAN, Ga. - Michael E. Benton has been sentenced for theft of public funds for unlawfully purchasing vouchers of the Georgia Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in exchange for cash.
“As an authorized vendor in the WIC program, this defendant made a commitment to sell nutritional foods to low-income mothers and children,” said United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates. “Instead he repeatedly exchanged food vouchers for cash, undermining an important program designed to protect the health of pregnant women and young children.”
Karen Citizen-Wilcox, SAC, United States Department of Agriculture, Office of the Inspector General, stated, “Individuals such as Michael Benton continue to think that the fraud perpetrated by them against Agriculture programs, such as the EBT and WIC program, will go unnoticed and unprosecuted. USDA-OIG is committed to working with its partners at the Georgia Department of Human Resources, local police departments like the Griffin Police Department, and DOJ to ensure that individuals like Mr. Benton continue to be prosecuted and sentenced to prison for defrauding both the programs meant to help people and the tax payers who fund such programs.”
According to United States Attorney Yates, the charges and other information presented in court: Benton owned and operated a small food store, “Healthy Oasis,” in Griffin, Ga., from August 2008 until December 2010. Healthy Oasis became an authorized Georgia WIC vendor in March 2009. Georgia WIC is a program that provides supplemental foods to low-income women who are pregnant, nursing, or postpartum, and to infants and children up to the age of five who are found to be nutritionally at risk. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides federal funds to the state of Georgia for the WIC program. WIC program participants receive paper vouchers which are to be used exclusively for the purchase of authorized food items from retail vendors. Vendors can only accept WIC vouchers in exchange for the purchase of authorized food items. Vendors then deposit the vouchers into their bank accounts, where they are processed similarly to checks.
An investigation of Healthy Oasis was initiated in January 2010 after the Griffin Police Department received a complaint that WIC vouchers were being purchased in exchange for cash at the store. During an undercover investigation conducted from January through September 2010, Michael Benton and one of his employees, acting at Benton’s direction, purchased approximately 117 WIC vouchers in exchange for cash paid to the undercover agents, who were posing as WIC program recipients. Benton deposited the vouchers into the business bank account for Healthy Oasis. Georgia WIC cancelled Healthy Oasis’s vendor authorization in September 2010. Analysis of Georgia WIC records and the Healthy Oasis bank account, which Benton exclusively controlled, showed that Healthy Oasis redeemed hundreds of thousands of dollars more in WIC vouchers than other WIC-authorized vendor stores of comparable size in the same geographic area during the same period of time that Healthy Oasis was in operation.
Benton, 56, of Atlanta, Ga., was sentenced today by United States District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr., to three years and five months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $1,422,902.70 to the Georgia WIC program. Benton was convicted on these charges on June 6, 2014, after he pleaded guilty.
This case was investigated by the United States Department of Agriculture, Office of the Inspector General, with assistance from the Griffin Police Department.
Assistant United States Attorney Teresa D. Hoyt prosecuted the case.
For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov or (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the home page for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia Newnan Division is http://www.justice.gov/usao/gan/.